Resisting the fetish of consensus
SPEAKING in a recent interview, Christopher Hitchens said he was always conscious of writing for posterity. By this he did not mean to imply a fixation on his posthumous reputation but an attachment to a principle: only by writing as if you will still be read when you are gone can you maintain intellectual integrity.
Nevertheless, the question of posterity has come into focus of late, Hitchens having been diagnosed with stage-four oesophageal cancer in the middle of a promotional tour for his superb memoir Hitch-22. Since, as he says, ‘‘ there is no stage five’’, it is natural to wonder how he will be read in the future.
The assumption that underlies The Quotable Hitchens is that Hitchens will be read, in part, as someone to whom we can refer when we need a pithy observation about some important issue of the day or public personality from the past. Organised alphabetically by subject, and comprising snippets from Hitchens’s essays, columns, books and television appearances, the book is a sort of Devil’s Dictionary, covering topics as various as Heresy, Heroes, Hezbollah and Paris Hilton (and that’s just page 128).
Observations on al-Qa’ida rub shoulders with paeans to alcohol, while Mel Gibson serves as an excellent sparring partner on the way to the title fight against God. There is also plenty of literary advice, such as the injunction to avoid the kind of image lamely deployed in the previous sentence. The sporting metaphor, Hitchens writes, ‘‘ is an infallible sign of an exhausted hack’’.
Though the book is subtitled ‘‘ from Alcohol to Zionism’’, the opening entry is on abortion. Here is Hitchens at his forensic best: I have always been convinced that the term ‘‘ unborn child’’ is a genuine description of a material reality. Obviously, the foetus is alive, so that disputation about whether or not it counts as ‘‘ a life’’ is casuistry. As for ‘‘ dependent’’, this has never struck me as a very radical criticism of any agglomeration of human cells in whatever state. Children are ‘‘ dependent’’ too.
The first thing to note is the way in which Hitchens refuses to allow morality to be monopolised by the religious lobby; his is a materialist perspective but is no less grounded in morality for that. But it is to pro-choice people that his arguments are explicitly directed, and their thinking doesn’t come out of the encounter well. What makes the performance even more impressive is that the arguments for a ‘‘ woman’s right to choose’’ tend to come from within his own constituency. Following the example of his hero George Orwell, Hitchens has always urged on the Left the necessity of ‘‘ facing unpleasant facts’’. And few facts are as unpleasant as those surrounding the termination of a pregnancy.
In this case, Hitchens complicates an issue about which there are strongly opposing views. But many of the entries in The Quotable Hitchens confirm him as someone for whom ‘‘ opposing views’’ are often not opposing enough. As a Marxist, Hitchens relishes conflict and is contemptuous of the quest for political consensus. Bipartisanship is a dirty word: ‘‘ Bipartisanship’’, by which is meant backroom decision-making, mutual softpeddling and covering-up, and all other manner of governing most accurately
Facing unpleasant facts . . . author and journali